After game 4, Rockets coach Kevin McHale looked like a beaten man. Another overtime loss meant the Hall of Famer could barely talk. Bad defensive possessions and ill advised shots from James Harden, again, sealed their fate. The bright spot for the Rockets all series has been Dwight Howard. He has made his free throws down the stretch. He has executed in the paint. He is playing hard and blocking shots. And none of it matters much. Because the Rockets are like all NBA teams. They are dependent on the offensive and defensive maturity of the team as a collective. It was a nice story the Rockets had of the D-league player Troy Daniels hitting a game winner. But let’s examine that. The Rockets needed a rookie to ensure a victory. The problem all series long has been their problem all year long. They are atrocious defensively in the area Dwight Howard cannot help. James Harden is a bad defender. Chandler Parsons is a bad defender. Jeremy Lin is a bad defender. Patrick Beverly is the best they have on the perimeter but his offense is hit or miss. That said, the Rockets have been in every game. They just have not made the right play on offense or defense when it counts. Coming back to Houston will be a relief but Kevin McHale still has a LaMarcus Aldridge problem. How do they contain him in Texas when he plays like Superman? The last two games have given Nicolas Batum confidence. James Harden has to give more on defense, and give up the ball more on offense. Otherwise Dwight will play his last game of the season. That championship he was dreaming of last summer will be nothing more than that, a faraway dream.
Toronto vs. Brooklyn (elimination game): Brooklyn will face a rabid crowd in Toronto as Toronto can advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in thirteen years. Then, Vince Carter was a 28 per night scorer as he carried the Raptors past their first round opponent, the New York Knicks. DeMar DeRozan is trying to do the same thing, win in five games. He is maturing as a franchise player and has improved in every game in the series. The Nets will play desperate and physical, look for a lot of foul calls. It is an elimination game for the Nets and being on the road is just the way the Nets veterans like it. Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson will show up and play hard. On the other side, Kyle Lowry will be the most important player for the Raptors, keeping them calm and focused. But can the Raptors meet the moment? Can they handle the expectations? Elimination games are the hardest games to win, especially at home and against proven players.
San Antonio vs. Dallas (game 5): If the Rockets-Blazers is the best series so far then second best is the Spurs-Mavs. It feels nothing like a 1 vs. 8 should feel. Both teams have a lot of perimeter shooting and a lot of veterans. The defense on both sides has been suspect. Kawhi Leonard shows up one game and the next game you hardly know he was in the lineup. Tim Duncan has been great. But Tony Parker is battling a sprained ankle, not exactly the best injury when he has to chase Monta Ellis and Devin Harris all over the court. Both Dallas guards are having a great series and the Spurs have no answer for them. Dirk has been underwhelming so far but it has not really mattered since the Mavs are a guard oriented team now. The conventional wisdom is that the Spurs at home are a lock. But the Mavs have a lot of confidence. The games have all been close, decided in the last possession. If their hot shooting continues the Mavs can pull off the upset.